Can Images of War & Destruction be Beautiful?

RICHARD MOSSE-Of-Lilies-and-Remains
RICHARD MOSSE-Of-Lilies-and-Remains

Follow the news and there’s no shortage of imagery of war and it’s destructive side-effects.  Can these images actually be considered beautiful? The Jack Shainman Gallery’s thinks so.  In it’s exhibit, A Change of Place, this Kinderhook, New York gallery features four artists who share riveting, sometimes shocking, and deeply human images of war.

But how can photos of people suffering, total destruction, and violence be a thing of beauty?  I get that such images can be expertly photographed or painted.  But when the content is so horrifying can we truly deem it beautiful?  It feels, well, amoral.

I’m not the only person raising this question.   After experiencing A Change of Place, Mebrak Tareke ponders this question in his post aptly entitled: The Unsettling Urge to Find Beauty Amid War.  He shares some of the best work from the show, especially from artists like Richard Mosse and Hayv Kahraman, and dissects them with a keen eye.

So how are they works of beauty?

He, along with veteran war photographer, Don McCullin, whom he cites, explain that we have an impulse to find beauty in — not because of but in spite of — the horror of war.   He doesn’t truly explain why but my sense is that we need to find such beauty to help us feel a sense of hope.  He shares another explanation offered by one of the photographers: such work gives dignity to the war-torn people and places captured.   His best explanation is that through these works of art we gain a new perspective.  He writes: This form of art

“also offers an opportunity… for us to reflect on violence in ways that perhaps television and the news may not.  In A Change of Place, there are images that really push me to want to uncover the past of places we may have lost, instead of making me look the other way.”

But I would take it a step further.  Beauty doesn’t necessary imply goodness.  When we appreciate beautiful images we don’t always have to take pleasure in them as much as UNDERSTAND them.  When we visit the MOMA and stare at works of art, we may not be enjoying the experience they evoke.  But we are being moved.  We are learning something.  For beauty to effect us, it needs to provoke a reaction.  It could be a soothing pleasant one or a jarring and startling one.  Of course with any works of art, we expect a degree of craft, talent, technical skill, imagination and originality.  Crap is crap.   But there is no ONE type of beauty.   In fact, sometimes it’s important to witness, even partake in the ugly side of beauty to appreciate the beauty of our everyday and what it takes to create it.

So can imagery of devastation be horrible, painful and frightening?  Yes. Does it mean we are pleased to see pain and destruction? No.  But sometimes we need to experience this form of art.  It not only sheds light on other worlds, it inevitably forces us to appreciate or question our own.

RICHARD MOSSE-Safe-From-Harm
RICHARD MOSSE-Safe-From-Harm
Richard Mosse, “Space Wagon Mosul”
Richard Mosse, “Space Wagon Mosul”

A Social Experiment: What Happens When You Tell Someone s/he is beautiful?

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We are taught, and still teach, our children to look beyond people’s exteriors to truly appreciate who they are.  And I would be the first to endorse that.

But this doesn’t mean we should ignore people’s beauty.  Beauty has become such a source of conflict in our culture.  We worship and demonize it at the same time.  We see it as the holy grail or petty and shallow.   And we don’t want others to think we only appreciate them for how they look.  (See last week’s post as proof of this.)

The result? We can’t fully accept it — either in ourselves or others.  And that’s really not healthy.

There is a great independent video by teenage Chicago student, Shea Glover, that’s being circulated in social media.  One day she took her video camera to school, stopped individual kids — some she’s friends with and some she isn’t — and told them that they were beautiful.  It is a must see!  Every teenager she approached looked different.  Some were girls and some were boys.  Their skin colors, styles and facial features represented every look you can imagine.

What strikes me is how almost all of them reacted in the exact same way.

First, each is surprised, even shocked, at being called beautiful.

Second, each giggled with embarrassment by the compliment, and responded with a degree of disbelief (one of her friends even curses at her!)

Finally, they all smile — I mean REALLY smile  — with happiness and gratitude.  As one said: “That is so nice.  This has been such a great day.”

Glover explains on YouTube: “I want to clarify that my intentions were not to get a reaction out of people.  I was simply filming beauty and this is the result.”  For more on the video, “Things I find Beautiful”, read this story.

It’s a simple but powerful video.  While it only features teenagers, I bet you most of us, no matter our age, would react similarly.  It shows us that we still have a long way to go to feel confident about how we look.  And it also reminds us that we need to raise the next generation — our kids, students, loved ones — to not shy away from their beauty but appreciate it.  Not only will they feel better about themselves, but will see the amazing variety of beauty in others!  As the video concludes: “There is so much beauty in the world.  If you blink, you will miss it.”

What is also so clear to me is power of making others feel beautiful.  This few seconds of interaction with Glover gave each of these kids a wonderful boost.  Imagine if they felt this beautiful everyday!?!

What can we do?  Appreciate our own beauty for one thing.  But also help others appreciate theirs.  Think of what it would like if we told at least one person every day that we thought he or she were beautiful?  Maybe it’s a friend or total stranger.  Plus, it’s easy!  And it doesn’t cost anything.  The result is so worth it. Oh, and your kids and friends will see you do this and maybe, just maybe do the same.

Hey, we are in the middle of the holiday season, scratching our heads as to what to give are friends and loved ones.  How about whole-heartedly  complimenting them on their individual beauty?!  That’s pretty a nice gift.

Of course we are a lot more than just physical beings.  But as this video shows, appreciating all of our outward beauty can make us feel oh so beautiful on the inside too.

“87% of girls aged 11-21 think women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability” And What We Can Do to change that

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I came across this stat in a study conducted by Girl Guiding, a charity for girls and young women in the U.K.  Though the study is a few years old, it was recently quoted in a Guardian article, “From Social Media to the Catwalk: Is Fantasy Beauty Failing Young Women?”

As you can imagine from the article’s title, the Guardian story reflects on the preponderance of images of models and idealized portraits of women in social media, and how this imagery gives false and harmful notions to our girls about their own bodies.  The statistic is indeed alarming, and unfortunately a belief that will be hard to break.  Why?  Not so much because of the actual imagery put out there.  Frankly, I think we, as a society, have begun to show a greater range of what’s considered beautiful.  After all, Kim Kardashian in by no means a size 0.  And digital’s ability to cross borders means we get to see images of people from all different ethnicities and backgrounds that we never have before.  Check out the posts I wrote: Beauty From Around the World and Why It’s Contagious  or What’s the Definition of Beauty Anyway?  (a story celebrating people with “abnormalities”) both of which tap into digital’s revealing of new ways to think about beauty.  Do I think we can go even farther in presenting more realistic images of girls and women?  Sure!  But that’s not going to change our being judged by our looks.

The reason this will be a hard habit to break is that we are a visual species.  Our ability to analyze information is far more sophisticated and quicker via our eyes than via language.  That is why we’ve glommed on to all the photo taking, altering and sharing in the digital space.  And it’s not such a bad thing!  By taking, sharing, and appreciating images, we get to see a deeper story behind people’s lives.  Images give so much more texture than mere words.  Images offer nuance and emotional details that our texting would normally leave out.  Moreover, these images remind us of the tremendous beauty that’s around us or oceans away.  And that reminder elevates our daily lives — showing us how amazing our world truly is.

We make assumptions, draw conclusions and make judgments based on what we see, first.  Should we be content with the high percentage of girls who believe they are judged by what they look like alone?  Of course not.  We have to face the reality that our eyes will draw conclusions.  Let’s not ignore that.  What we can do is urge one another to not STOP at what we see, but rather dig into what’s behind the exterior.  And we must start with ourselves.

I actually think there’s even another way to look at this issue. Let’s not devalue the exterior beauty of what and who is around us. Let’s certainly NOT pretend it doesn’t exist. We SHOULD recognize it. In fact, let’s appreciate all people’s beauty, and recognize that how people uniquely appear is part of the story to be sussed out and listened to. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. We should value all the amazing characteristics of things and people — their unique beauty along with their origins, their stories, their talents and generosity. If we see — and remind our children and friends to see — that all people are a collection of traits, some physical, some emotional, some spiritual and some intellectual, we will value people as a whole that much more.

We have the amazing power to look AT and look INTO our world. Let’s do both and maybe that statistic will be a thing of the past.

 

Beautiful Protests: Don’t Dismiss Beauty Queens. The Chinese Govt is Downright Scared of Them & for Very Good Reason!

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There’s a lot of different ways to protest.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the worst of them over the past few weeks.  But, for the most part, challenging the status quo, the social wrongs we see, or just plain ol’ anachronistic thinking is an incredibly valuable and innate human behavior.  And, tonight being the first night of Hannukah — a commemoration of the Maccabees’s protest against the repressive Greek regime of their day — it’s only fitting to celebrate it!

The more tyrannical or oppressive the object of our protest, the more crafty, clever and creative we must be in our rebellious acts.  We can’t always march in the street or publish our thinking.  We need to use what we have at our disposal.  And that is exactly what a few feisty beauty queens did as they protested against the Chinese government.  Over the course of the last few days, I saw news story after new story highlighting not just one, but two, beauty pageants that have enraged the Chinese government.

At the Miss Earth beauty pageant, the contestant from Taiwan, Ting Wen-yin, refused to change her sash from “Miss Taiwan ROC” to “Miss Chinese Taipei.”  Her explanation: “I was born in Taiwan, my sash now says Taiwan, I represent Taiwan, and I’m going to use the name of Taiwan in appearing at this pageant.”  She also shared in social media the horrible treatment that all the contestants were subjected to like not being served some meals and forced to attend night clubs to flirt with men.  The result? She was reprimanded, banned from certain activities, and not allowed to be in pictures.  Eventually she was kicked out all together. (For more of the story, read here)

Around the same time, another story hit the news stream about Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born woman who was crowned Miss Canada.  She has been using the pageant’s platform and the subsequent press coverage to speak against the Chinese government.  She has also created films and written essays to share the corruption and repressive acts of her former government.  And the Chinese leadership was pissed.  Majorly.  They tried to ban her from the Miss Universe pageant.  This, of course, backfired creating an even bigger uproar and heightening her efforts that much more.

Needless to say, the Chinese government is super skittish now when it comes to beauty pageants.

What these stories show us is that the “popular” cultural activities, like beauty pageants (and the people who participate in them) which we may snicker at, can play a powerful role in society.  While I have a hard time endorsing the parading of women around in bathing suits, I also have the seen the power of these “institutions.”  Since the beginning of time and into today, pageants have served as spaces where women could achieve something — whether a way out of poverty or a podium to protest.    I applaud Lin and Wen-yin who not only risked their success to tell their stories, but who realized how to best use the gifts they had and the circumstances they found themselves in, i.e., beauty contests, to do it.  Would they have been listened to if they didn’t use this platform?  Maybe…but, then again, maybe not.

It’s easy for us to look down at people who want to show off and get rewarded for their physical beauty.  But many of us aren’t in the same social, economic and political situations as these people.  Moreover, when beauty contestants use their beauty, and the pageants that showcase their beauty, in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to, how can we NOT admire them?

Lesson here? First, let’s never ever assume that beauty queens are dumb.  Second, we shouldn’t assume that the popular, seemingly frivolous events, like beauty contests, don’t have a potential role for social betterment.  Finally, let’s appreciate the fact that we live in a society where we CAN protest a multitude of ways without fear of reprisal.

 

Want to End Violence Against Women? Start by Wearing Orange

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I had the privilege of attending an intimate lunch with an amazing group of accomplished and giving people at the U.N. the day before Thanksgiving.  The purpose of this luncheon was to commemorate the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women.  The gathering was hosted by the United Nations Trust Fund To End Violence Against Women and was kicked off by an event which included speeches, poetry readings and a panel.

This group’s mission is to “support(s) effective initiatives that demonstrate that violence against women and girls can be systematically addressed, reduced and, with persistence, eliminated….(It) has awarded USD 103 million to 393 initiatives in 136 countries and territories. The UN Trust Fund currently supports 95 programmes in 75 countries and territories with a value of USD 56 million.”

Of course I’m going to support this initiative!  I am fortunate enough to have been brought up in a loving environment and continue to live and work in safety.  But I also realize that there are many, many women — abroad and in our very own country — who live in harm’s way.  Imagine being under constant fear of sexual exploitation or being at high risk for HIV contraction because you live on the street in Eastern Europe?  Imagine living in Campbodia where a common form of punishment is acid being poured on your face, or if you were denied access to services after being sexually abused in South Sudan?  And the list of violent acts towards girls and women around the world goes on.

“What does this have to do with beauty?” you may be asking.  Certainly the subject seems so trivial in comparison to these UN’s initiatives.  Ah, but there is a connection.

The symbol of the commemoration was the color orange.  More than that, the event’s attendees were asked to wear something in the color.  Some people wore orange dresses or other pieces of clothing, like ties.  And if you didn’t have an orange garment, everyone was given a gift of a lovely orange scarf to wear.  I, too, received and wore one.  I’m sure most people didn’t think twice about donning it or why the very act of WEARING orange — not just having orange decorations and merchandise — is significant.  But it is.

What we choose to put on our bodies is important.  We don’t just wear clothing to shield our ourselves from the elements or to comply with social norms.  We wear what we do to tell a story — a story about ourselves, about our beliefs and about our hopes.  In fact, what we wear is often our first form of communication.  We are visual people.  Seeing is one of our first senses and certainly one of our most complex.  We compute information when we see it far faster than when we decode it via language. By my wearing the orange scarf and then posting the image to my social media networks (vs just tweeting a few words of encouragement), I undoubtedly caught people’s attention.  And by doing so, I both showed support for the cause, and, hopefully, prompted others to learn about the UN’s amazing projects.

But clothing doesn’t JUST communicate to others.  It reminds us of who we are and what we stand for.  It forces us to pay attention to our bodies and our personalities. When we ask, “does it fit?” when we put something on, we are asking, “Does it fit our physical selves?”   That question may urge us to get in better shape or remind us that we are fine as we are.  Or we may be asking does it fit our inner selves, i.e., is it too corporate, too immodest, too casual…you get the point.  It may force even more profound questions upon ourselves, like, who are we?  What do I want to be known for?  And, for many of us privileged Americans, how privileged am I to wear what I want without fear of attack.

We can choose to view clothing as something frivolous.  Or we can see it as a way to reconnect with ourselves, with others and our united hope for a better future.

I will definitely hold on to that orange scarf and wear it with pride.   It is a reminder of what we have done to help women around the world and how much further we have to go. And, in this time of thanksgiving, it’s a reminder of how grateful I am to live as a woman in freedom and safety.

What Do Beauty & Cannibalism Have in Common?

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The title isn’t a tease.  I’m going to give you the answer but I need to back track a bit.

Beauty can now be judged by artificial intelligence.  Yep, there is going to be a beauty contest using robots to judge people’s appearances.  The reason for the new type of contest?  According the recent article about this contest, Beauty Contest Features Algorithmic Judges, human judges are too biased to judge beauty fairly.

As a tech-lover and someone fascinated with A.I., I wanted to appreciate this new type of contest, but the idea is all wrong.  I’m sure many of you would begin by protesting the whole concept of a beauty contest.  I have mixed feelings about the benefit of these contests, and I’ve written about the pros and cons of them in many past posts.  But, for today, I’m actually going leave that argument alone.

What I will challenge instead is the idea that a robot can truly detect beauty.  This isn’t an argument for embracing inner beauty (though I appreciate that too).  Rather it’s argument against the idea that our definition of beauty is only measurable.  I agree that we are attracted to symmetry and a certain ratio of eyes to chin to forehead, etc. as a survival mechanism from our ancient pasts.  The thinking here is the more symmetrical our features, the healthier we are, and the healthier our offspring would be.  Of course a digital device would better discern these measurements.  I also agree with the story that human judges can be biased due to cultural norms.

My issue with such a contest is that what we perceive as beautiful is strongly associated with a person’s “essence.”  I’ve written about this concept in an earlier post, the Pleasure of Beauty.  According to author and Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom, in his book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of What We Like What We Like, we derive pleasure from things like art, sports and beauty.  But this pleasure doesn’t just come from the rational combination of factors (think technical skills like amazing batting speed or the perfect pirouette) but from the ESSENCE of things and people.  The essence is that which lies beneath the surface –the history, background, personality, you get the picture.  As Bloom writes: “things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.”  This is why we pay tons of money for an original painting versus a counterfeit.  It also explains, not to gross you out, why some people are cannibals…they want to connect with the “inner-ness” of the person.  Net net, we seek the essence to truly get pleasure from things.

This goes for physical beauty too.  We all have an essence that comes forth to make us more or less beautiful.  Maybe you call that our “stories”, a certain depth, or our many sides.  And this essence shapes our perceptions of others’ beauty.

Bloom cites an experiment with college students in which classmates were asked to rate people’s looks.  The participants weren’t acquainted with the classmates beyond sitting with them in the same lectures.  Interestingly, attractiveness ratings went up when classmates saw people more often.  It’s not that now they had a better view of the people they were rating.  The point here is that more exposure to who a person is — their ESSENCE — the greater the appreciation of even his/her physical attractiveness.   In fact, what I think is even more interesting is that the subjects (i.e. the people assessing others’ beauty) didn’t even interact with their classmates!  They didn’t form their opinions because one was nice or the other was obnoxious.  It was merely the closeness that developed over time, and the greater recognition of the others as human beings, that affected their views.

This is not a call for eschewing physical beauty in favor of inner beauty.  And I’m not saying inner beauty determines our assessments of who is beautiful.  Rather, what I take from Bloom’s analysis is that beauty is a combination of physical characteristics and one’s essence.   Our sense of attraction can’t be deconstructed to include ONLY physical characteristics.  We just aren’t wired to see the world this way.

Yes, a bizarro beauty contest can turn beauty into something scientific and objective.  But, and what we all probably know at some level and what Bloom confirms, our physical attractiveness is actually quite deep.  We are beautiful because we are not just perfect, symmetrical robots, but because we are human beings.

 

When the Seemingly Ugly Is Very Beautiful

IMG_20151106_091859Imagine this: you walk to work surrounded by cranes in the sky, trucks roaring beside you, cars impatiently waiting at a tense standstill as heavy mobile cement mixers drive against the traffic.  Then imagine having to take walking detours as men in hard hats motion you to get out-of-the-way of a huge load of metal rods that are being lowered onto the street.  And almost every street has scaffolding obscuring any character of the buildings you pass.  There are no scents of flowers or shady trees.  There are no sculptures or mini parks.  There’s just concrete, trucks and wooden make-shift walls.

“Ugh,” you’re probably thinking, “what a horrible place to be.”

Well, this is my commute, EVERY SINGLE DAY.  I walk from 59th St and 10th avenue to my offices on 15th street in in Manhattan. For over 40 blocks I can’t avoid any of this.

And, yet, I love it!  I find all this hassle, men in hard hats, grinding sounds of construction and boarded up buildings, well, beautiful.  There is an energy to all of this construction.  Men and women are hard at work, yelling commands at one another, measuring distances or hustling to manage some sort of construction material.  You can really see the imagination and brawn of humankind taking shape. It’s quite magnificent.  It literally takes my breath away.

Why am I sharing this experience with you all?  Because so many of us live in cruise control.  We don’t notice the beauty around us.  More importantly, we don’t the notice the beauty that may be hidden to us at first glance.   We are constantly on the move trying to achieve the next thing — picking up our kids, getting to work, prepping for our presentation.  And let’s be honest, there may not be any flowers to stop and smell along the way.  But I guarantee you that there is beauty taking shape in interesting ways all around us, all the time.  We just need to tilt our heads in a slightly different angle and truly notice it.

This desire to see the beauty in the seemingly mundane — even ugly — things around us is one of the explanations for the preponderance of banal images that seem to overwhelm our internet feeds.  In my research I found that people are attracted to these everyday pics MORE than the the unusual, out-of-this-world stuff because we crave the beauty in the everyday.  Such a discovery elevates our everyday and reminds us that our daily lives are full of wonder, not just the grind.

What may seem ugly, drab or boring may just be quite beautiful.  We just need to scrape away the layers a bit and truly take the time to think about it.  But when you do, you’ll realize how cool our everyday world really are.

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